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"The Disorganized Tribe": Navajo Resistance to the Progressive Ideal, 1933-1935

Redburn, Kate

This paper examines a dramatic conflict between the federal government and Navajo or Diné people after the New Deal. After killing some three hundred thousand Diné horses, goats, and sheep, the government held a referendum on the reservation for a major reform package to devolve power back to tribal authorities. Government officials were shocked when the nation's largest tribe voted down the reforms. I argue that the vote result is best explained by consistent federal government misunderstanding of how political power was distributed on the reservation. The government's ignorance became a tragic flaw, rather than a predictable misidentification, in the context of the stock reductions of 1933-1935, which fomented Diné antagonism against the government. With anger running high, Diné political factions united to repudiate government intervention in Diné Bikeyah. Most notably, the interests of traditional female leaders whose power and status was derived from their livestock converged with the interests of assimilationist Diné men who resented the government's cultural preservationist stance. This convergence happened right under the nose of Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) officials, but they were ill equipped to notice. They expected to find a homogenous, paternalist tribe with democratic principles enshrined in the Tribal Council and local Chapter House system; instead, they encountered a political tradition of consultation, discussion, and consensus, within a culture of gender equality.

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B.A., Columbia University
Published Here
May 14, 2010

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Senior thesis.

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